Three decades later, King's dream still lives

Paul Greenberg

January 17, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

WHAT IS THE state of the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial almost three decades ago? Not good. If the formal barriers that separated us from one another in 1963 have come tumbling down, informal ones have grown apace.

The progress or lack of it in American race relations has paralleled Martin Luther King's own standing in the American sense of history. His birthday is now a formal, national holiday but informally, a new enthusiasm appears for a jangle of different and less universal heroes: Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, even Louis Farrakhan.

The old dream of a new unity proves less than satisfactory to a new generation, and separatism is staging a comeback. To the youthful and not too discerning, Jim Crow looks better when he dons a dashiki.

Desperation begins to seep back into the hearts of those who once followed him, and the conciliation he preached sometimes seems farther away than ever. It's not a dramatic shift in mood, just a slow draining of energy and hope year after year in the face of the poverty and social dissolution that stalks black America the way the slavers once did.

This Moses may have led his people out of Egypt, but not into a promised land, and the disappointment is palpable. The fleshpots of old begin to look pretty good after a time in the wilderness, and some begin to suspect that freedom isn't all it was cracked up to be. Dr. King's words about nonviolence and racial integration acquire a dated sound. New leaders arise who knew him not, and they promise a short-cut or two across the wilderness.

The journey has not ended; it has only been interrupted. The stragglers separate and go in search of strange gods -- or turn back toward an idyllic past that cannot be resurrected because it never was.

In the present disillusionment, it is easy to forget just how much has changed since the American dialogue was being conducted with sit-ins and cattle prods. It is scarcely noticed that one reason the old dream dims is that so much of it has been realized. This is a different country from the one that awaited a young Army officer returning home from Vietnam three decades ago:

"In 1963 America was torn apart by the forces of racial prejudice, segregation and intolerance. America was being forced to examine itself in the mirror of dreams our founding fathers had left us. It was an ugly, twisted image that could not be avoided and which screamed for change. We were living a lie. And nowhere was that lie more evident than in Birmingham, Ala. Police dogs, bombs, water cannons, mobs, and cattle prods were being used to suppress blacks who were determined to exercise their fundamental rights of assembly and access . . .

"When I returned home that Christmas, I was hit full force with what had been happening in my absence. I was stunned, disheartened and angry. While I had been fighting in Vietnam alongside brave soldiers trying to preserve their freedom, in my own land a long-simmering conflict had turned into an open fight in our streets and cities -- a fight that had to be won."

It was won. The young Army officer who returned to Birmingham that summer of discontent was Colin Powell. He is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some things certainly have changed. Like the map of legislative districts in the South, or the complexion of government and education in the nation.

If you seek King's monument, just look around. And compare what is to what was. No, this isn't the Millennium, and it would be a lie to say we've reached the promised land -- as big a lie as the claim that nothing has changed. Slavery and segregation are behind us, but we still wander in the wilderness.

A secret: There is no promised land. Not even in America. No official state paper promises happiness, only the pursuit of it. There is only the choice between slavery and the wilderness: the bitter security of hatred and division -- or the uncertain quest that is freedom.

The dream has not died; it has only expanded, and made us dissatisfied with what once may have seemed beyond hoping. Now as then, the killers of the dream abound. And here in the wilderness, they whisper: Turn back. Better if we had died in Egypt than this. In place of trust, they plant suspicion. In place of communication, silence. In place of unity, separatism.

But the nation will go forward -- in faith and memory as much as anything, remaining true to the old dream, refusing to trade it in on brittle new panaceas. Each of us will strengthen the other and, though it may not always seem like it, all will advance together. They have killed the dreamer -- but they can't kill the dream.

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